Category: Canada Reads

Canada Reads Along 2022: Five Little Indians

Cover image for Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

by Michelle Good

ISBN 9781443459198

“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”

Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.

Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.

Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.

Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.

Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.

As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.

Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.

It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2022! Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to check out some of the past winners like We Have Always Been Here (2020) and By Chance Alone (2019).

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Scarborough

Cover image for Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

by Catherine Hernandez

ISBN 9781551526782

“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”

When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.

Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.

In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.

The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.

Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.

During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, he discovers he is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was resisting in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take Wash to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.

Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.

After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.  

Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

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Canada Reads Along 2022: What Strange Paradise

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

by Omar El Akkad

ISBN 9780525657910

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water. 

What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.

The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”

What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.

The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.

The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.

When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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Canada Reads Along 2021: Jonny Appleseed

by Joshua Whitehead

ISBN 9781551527253

“My home is full of hope and ghosts.”

Since leaving the Peguis reservation, Jonny has been doing cybersex work to pay the rent in Winnipeg, rarely traveling back home especially after his grandmother’s death. But when his step-father dies, his mother calls him home for the funeral and Jonny has only a few days to get together the money he needs for the trip back to the rez. As he works to scrape together the rent plus funds for the drive up north, Jonny reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his mother and grandmother, and the fraught intersection between his indigenous heritage and his queer identity. Homecoming is a complex reckoning with the self, and the family that made him.

The relationships with the women in his family are at the heart of the story, as Jonny was raised by his mother, who had him young, and his grandmother. His father left when he was a toddler and then died tragically, and his step-father was never a positive force in his life, even if his mother loved him. In fact, for self-identified glitter princess Jonny, masculinity has always been fraught, especially where it intersects with his indigeneity. He has had to play “straight on the rez in order to be NDN” and in the city he has played “white in order to be queer.” Part of this tension is embodied by the symbol of a bear. Jonny’s family is bear clan, but within the queer community, he cannot claim this title due to an entirely separate meaning. It is only one small way in which he feels he has been forced to divide his identities against himself. Part of his journey of self-reclamation is laying claim to titles like Two Spirit and indigiqueer that try to forge the two halves of himself back into a single whole.

Running through the story is Jonny’s poignant relationship with Tias. They have been friends since childhood, and have long been lovers, but Tias is not fully reconciled with what his love for Jonny means about his own sexual identity. Tias also has a long-time girlfriend, and the three are caught in a complex relationship, where Jordan and Jonny know that they share Tias, but do not openly acknowledge it to one another. Yet Jonny finds himself unable to hate her because she reminds him in many ways of his grandmother; “they were both little women with the ferocious power of a behemoth inside them.” The relationship Joshua Whitehead has created here is simultaneously tender and tragic; in order for Jonny to have love, it is not enough for him to be reconciled with himself, he also needs for Tias to do the same.

Bodies and physicality are an important part of Jonny’s story, the site of both injuries and pleasure, the one often morphing into the other. He also literally makes his living by his body, mostly selling cam shows and the occasional live meeting with a client, because his mother taught him that if he likes something and he is good at it, he should never do it for free. As a child, Jonny’s long hair is simultaneously a symbol of his indigeneity and part of the perception of his queerness, the two pulling against one another. We he finally cuts it off for a fauxhawk, it is his grandmother, in her admiration for whiteness, who allows the change. Yet she is also the person who first sees Jonny for what he is, and gives him the term Two Spirit to describe it. Straight bodies also tell stories, if in less fraught ways. Jonny’s stepfather’s body “was like a graveyard of injuries and ailments, so alive with experiences, while mine was riddled with shame.” As Jonny puts it, “our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.” Jonny Appleseed braids together past and present, the mundane and the spiritual, the crass and the poetic into a visceral exploration of family, identity, and sexuality that will make you feel like you have walked a mile in Jonny’s shoes.

Jonny Appleseed was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. As a queer Mohawk woman herself, Jacobs spoke passionately to the importance of this narrative, highlighting the fact that it is the first book by a Two Spirit indigenous author that has been represented at the table in the twenty year history of Canada Reads. Her defence repeatedly touched on themes such as resilience, healing, and the power to transmute pain into humour in order to survive and thrive. Describing it as a full body reading experience, Jacobs leaned into the physicality of the narrative, including the sexuality, arguing that it was a book she needed herself as a teen.

Jonny Appleseed went into the finale against Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, defended by Roger Mooking, another title also published by the small, independent Arsenal Pulp Press. Both books touched on themes of family, trauma, healing, resilience, and forgiveness, making the final day of debates particularly interesting. Host Ali Hassan posed a series of questions that asked the panelists to consider which book most effectively depicted complicated relationships, the multidimensional theme of home, and fresh perspectives on love. However, most of the panelists spoke to how both books effectively achieved these ends. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee noted the relationship between Tias and Jonny, while Rosey Edeh was moved by Jonny’s relationship with his mother and grandmother.

The arguments for Jonny Appleseed throughout the week clearly made a particularly strong impression on panelist Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who spoke about how hard he found the book to read. However, he credited the influence of the debates in causing him to re-examine why he wasn’t initially able to see the healing and perseverance in the novel. He also cited Jonny Appleseed as the book that brought him a fresh and compelling perspective that he had never considered or been privy to before.

In the final vote of the week, Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making Jonny Appleseed the first book by an indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

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Canada Reads Along 2021: Butter Honey Pig Bread

by Francesca Ekwuyasi

ISBN 9781551528236

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well.”

Content Warning: Childhood sexual abuse

Twins Taiye and Kehinde used to be one zygote. These days, they barely speak to one another after being a torn apart by a terrible thing they never speak about. Leaving their mother Kambirinachi behind in Nigeria, they venture out into the world separately, to France, England, Canada and beyond. Sometimes they are on opposite sides of the world, other times they live only hours apart without ever seeing one another. But now they are both back home in Lagos, Kehinde bringing her husband Farouq, and Taiye trailing a long series of failed relationships with women who have changed her life for better and for worse. Back in their childhood home, the two sisters and their eccentric mother must reckon with the event that drove Taiye and Kehinde apart.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of family with just a touch of the supernatural. Kambirinachi believes herself to be ogbanje or abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by repeatedly being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. On her third birth, she chose to stay in this world for a time, but she still hears the voices of her disembodied Kin call to her, tempting her towards the doorways back to the space between. For much of their lives, her daughters seem quite normal, but as an adult, Taiye sees the manifestation of Our Lady—a spirit that looks like her sister—in whom she confides and seeks advice, even when she is not speaking to the real Kehinde.

It is revealed relatively early in the story that, while their mother was still grieving their father’s death, one of the sisters was sexually assaulted by a relative. Previously so alike, this difference divides them, festering unspoken in their relationship for decades. Because they cannot talk about this biggest hurt, they cannot speak of almost anything, a long silence stretching between them. In the years since, Taiye wrote to Kehinde, but never mailed the letters, until one day her girlfriend found them and posted them to her sister. Kehinde has been reading the letters, while Taiye continues to pretend they were never sent. The letters add an additional layer of narration between them as they struggle towards a new relationship.

Taiye has spent her adult life working in kitchens and studying culinary arts around the world. Cooking can serve as both a method of bonding, of creating something together, and also as a way for the three women to avoid talking to one another, making busy with the work of the kitchen. Many of the recipes in Butter Honey Pig Bread are so closely described, including measurements, that it might be possible to recreate them straight from the cooking passages. The book’s very title is derived from the food that permeates the narrative, providing a connection to family and home.

Francesca Ekwuyasi makes varying narrative choices for the different sections, which range from Kambirinachi to Taiye to Kehinde in a non-linear fashion. At first, Kehinde is the only first person narrator, drawing the reader a little closer to her character while her mother and her sister’s stories are told in the third person. The occasional passage will address the reader directly, such as when Ekwuyasi writes that “perhaps in your life you’ve come across a force that’s matched and moved you. Maybe it changed you so profoundly that when you look back at the landscape of your life, you are struck by the indelible mark it left.” Late in the book, Kambirinachi breaks from third into the first person, demanding agency and the right to finally tell her own story. These shifts draw attention to the power of narrative and point of view, and how it shapes the reader’s perception of the story being told. The novel explores grief, humanity, loss, family, identity and more, taking the reader across the world and back again in a sweeping family saga.

Butter Honey Pig Bread was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by chef and television host Roger Mooking. Throughout the week, Mooking was a passionate and eloquent defender of his book, though he often struggled against the time limits imposed by the debate format, with unrehearsed arguments that did not fit into the time allotted for opening and closing statements. However, his energy was enough to bring Butter Honey Pig Bread to the finale, highlighting both the craft and the themes of the book in his defense. He spoke to the relationships, the mythology, the food, and the sense of community that bind this story together into a tapestry that can be viewed at a distance, or examined up close without diminishing its beauty.

The questions focused on the depiction of complicated relationships, the concept of home, and the portrayal of love in the last two books standing. In their answers to most of the questions, the panelists were able to draw out aspects of both titles that effectively touched on these themes, or helped them experience a new perspective. Scott Helman returned to the idea of finding more hope in Jonny Appleseed compared to Butter Honey Pig Bread, but in general it was difficult to tell which way the panelists were leaning. In some ways, the efforts of the host to tease the two books apart through these questions only served to illustrate that the two books shared many themes. Rosey Edeh praised the warmth and strength of the story, and how that was able to carry her through confronting the trauma that the characters have experienced in their lives. The final round of debate asked each panelist to speak to how the remaining books had changed them, and almost all of them had good things to say about both of the remaining titles. Scott Helman particularly cited the concept of the ogbanje as a new idea that stayed with him long after he closed the book, despite his other criticisms of this title.

On the final day, the votes come down to the free agents whose books have already been eliminated earlier in the week. Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making it the final book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the winning book, and a look back on the week’s debates!

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Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!